While most people have heard of Michelangelo, the majority have no idea that he had some pretty filthy habits. Nicknamed Il Divino (“the divine one”) by his contemporaries, Michelangelo was a master artist of many mediums, but not of personal hygiene.
Born into the Italian Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, he was not just as a sculptor, but a painter, architect and poet as well. His best-known artworks include the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted between 1508 and 1512, which incorporates a stunning portrait of a naked Adam entitled The Creation of Adam . Michelangelo was also responsible for completing the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City , and for creating David, one of the most famous nude sculptures in the world.
The Creation of Adam, a section of the famed Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco by Michelangelo. ( Public domain )
While you’d think that a person with intimate knowledge and appreciation of anatomy and beauty would care for his own body, Michelangelo was an “uncouth genius.” For all the beauty portrayed in his art, it appears that Michelangelo did not share this characteristic with his subjects.
Unlike his contemporary, Raphael, Michelangelo was a cantankerous individual and, despite rubbing shoulders with popes and patrons, his crabby character led him to evade socializing. He even avoided having assistants and preferred to work on his enormous commissions alone. Several of his projects took several years to complete and he immersed himself in his work with unusual dedication, often forgetting to eat or sleep.
One of his biographers, Paolo Giovio, noted that “his nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid.” In another biography, this time by an apprentice called Ascanio Condivi who worked closely with Michelangelo in creating the memoir, he was recorded to have said: “However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man.” Despite his appearance, Michelangelo was actually “fabulously rich,” according to the LA Times .
Michelangelo drawing from an anatomized cadaver, by Antonin Mercié. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0 )
Whether from neglect, or some moral stance, in his intimate portrayal Condivi explained that Michelangelo led an unhygienic lifestyle. “When he was more robust, he often slept in his clothes and in the boots which he has always worn for reason of cramp, from which he has continually suffered, as much as for anything else,” explained Condivi.
“And sometimes he has been so long in taking them off that subsequently along with his boots, he sloughed off his skin, like a snake’s,” continued Condivi. The body odor must have been memorable! Giorgio Vasari, the author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects , published in 1550, even noted that his boots, known as buskins, were made of dog-skin which were worn so much that they ended up fusing with his legs.
This lack of self-care and obsessive work meant that Michelangelo suffered from several health issues, including chronic osteoarthritis. Spending four years painting a ceiling in an awkward position can do that. A small man measuring as little as 5 feet 2 inches (157 centimeters), based on a study of his footwear published in Anthropologie back in 2021, he is also thought to have suffered from lead poisoning and gout.
Top image: Portrait of Michelangelo by Jacopino del Conte. Source: Public domain
By Cecilia Bogaard